Loneliness is now a major problem in our society. How should we respond to those in need? See my column in this week’s Scottish Catholic Observer, published on 12.07.2019.
I’ve been planning three journeys this year. I’m going up to the Scalan mass in June then in July I’m going to Benbecula for an ordination. I’m no sooner home from that than I’m off to Canada to visit my son and his family. I used to enjoy journeys but I don’t find them so interesting now. Maybe I’m getting old. (You don’t need to agree with that too quickly)
I don’t enjoy driving on long journeys on busy roads. The traffic is heavy and you really need to keep a good lookout for people doing foolish things. You don’t get a chance to see what’s around you. Flying is no better. Our flight to Canada will entail going to Manchester, the only way we can get a direct flight to Vancouver. Glasgow to Vancouver was always popular but that’s gone. Long waits at airports are a real pain.
We go on journeys to find something. I’m going to the Scalan to find and celebrate a little bit of our history. The other journeys are to catch up with family and find out how they are living. Most of all I suppose I’m going on journeys to find something about myself. It used to be fashionable to go on a journey to find yourself. The Beatles went to India to spend time with the Maharishi and find themselves. That puzzled me at the time. I thought that was strange to look for yourself in a place you had never visited before..
I’ve since realised that they were probably right. When you move out of your normal environment and encounter different people in different cultures it shows up aspects of your own life you took for granted. Travelling in Africa I’ve encountered people who would give you their last cup of water or bowl of rice. That made me question my own commitment to others. I might give some spare money to a charity but these people literally gave away all they had.
Young people are often encouraged to take a ‘gap year’ to find themselves before getting into work. The emphasis is all about ‘me’. We are encouraged to empower ‘me’. To achieve our potential we must concentrate on ‘me’. We are in a modern cult of ‘me’. We have become the focus and centre of our own lives. I think this is a mistake
Life is a journey. Not just cradle to grave but a journey from being a baby knowing nothing growing to discover the world and our place in it. Some have a long journey and some have a short one. Do we get tired of the problems we encounter and miss the interesting things on the way? Life throws up problems that can threaten to overwhelm us and we worry so much we risk missing the important stuff. It can be easy to miss finding out who we really are. Sometimes we are defined by where we live or the job we do. Sometimes it’s about what we own. All of these miss the real ‘me’.
Now I never remember the words of songs but one phrase that
has stuck in my memory from the sixties is “You’re so vain I bet you think this
song is about you.” I think that sums up the cult of ‘me’. If I focus
completely on me then I’m missing out on everything else and because I don’t
exist in isolation I’m missing out on part of myself.
I exist as part of something much greater. In John’s gospel we find Jesus explaining just that.
“I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing.”
John 15: 5
So the real you is not just the person I see on the train in the morning, making your way to work, coming home and putting your feet up. You are really part of Christ’s being, part of His work in bringing His kingdom to reality on Earth. Our journey through life is part of that great work. Whether we live in a one bedroom flat or a fifty room mansion is irrelevant. Whether we owe money to the bank or own the bank makes no difference to the real importance of our lives.
Losing sight of that is one of the great tragedies of our times. Our society measures the worth of a person by their wealth, position or celebrity. The poor can be ignored but the rich must be listened to. The media seek out the opinions of celebrities more often that finding people of intellect when reporting events and the great questions of our time.
When we deny the presence of Christ in our lives we reduce human life to that of a commodity we can seek or dispose of as we please. The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children reported that in Scotland 13,286 unborn children were aborted in 2018. The National Records of Scotland tell us that the most common cause of death in Scotland in 2017 was Ischaemic heart disease: 6,727deaths.
As we can see abortion is almost twice as lethal as heart disease yet those unborn children are not counted in the statistics. Is that because we might be victims of heart disease ourselves? Do I focus on what might affect me because my life is important and the unborn are not? As a society we certainly seem to have cut ourselves off from God. Cut off from God do we achieve nothing?
We live in an age of great technological advances and of great wealth. Has that helped us to solve the problems of our time? We certainly see advances in medicine, combating diseases that swept the earth in the past. Are we happier now? Some of us live longer, happier lives but we live in a world that seems to be facing growing problems that we might actually be causing.
We see mass movements of migrant trying to escape danger and find a better life. The world’s oceans are predicted to rise and flood coastal cities. The air we breathe is polluted by the vehicles we drive around in. (I confess to driving one of those vehicles.) Scientists warn us that we are changing the planet so that it will not sustain life.
We don’t seem to have achieved much. We don’t seem to have achieved happiness as measured by our society’s values. We are not rich enough, beautiful enough, popular enough or whatever. Only by Gods measure can we see the real value we have.
So when you are trying to find the real you please bear this in mind. It’s not all about ‘me’ it’s about ‘us’. You are important because you are a branch on that vine. You are so important that God sent His only Son to die for you. If God values you so highly why would you even consider the popular values of today?
This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 10th May 2019
I’ve been reading a lot about criticism of Pope Francis. I find it worrying because the criticism is coming from within the Church. It’s coming from high levels within the hierarchy. I find it strange because ordinary people like me seem to be very happy with the Pope and take comfort in what he is reported to say.
What sort of things is the Pope saying that seems to cause concern and who are concerned? Some bishops and even cardinals have expressed concern that Pope Francis’ statements on people whose family arrangements are, shall we say unconventional, may run counter to the teaching of the Church. These would mainly be about those who have divorced and remarried. The Church does not recognise divorce since it is concerning a sacrament, matrimony. You can’t just undo a sacrament.
The Church does recognise that some marriages fail because they were not complete in the first place. Where the conditions for marriage were not met the marriage is invalid and can be annulled. The problem would not be obvious at the time of the marriage but subsequent events may show this to be the case. Unfortunately the annulment process is not well known or understood among most Catholics and the annulled marriage would normally be dissolved in a divorce to meet the legal requirements of civil marriage law.
The resulting confusion and the need to get out of a difficult situation can leave many people in a difficult situation. A subsequent remarriage is not recognised by the Church and their irregular situation leaves the new couple cut off from the sacraments. They can’t go back to a former situation and they can’t walk away from their new family. They find themselves between a rock and a hard place.
Pope Francis has also caused concern by his comments about homosexual people. He has stated that being homosexual is not a sin. That is to correct a misconception held by many Catholics. His treatment of priests involved in sexual abuse has caused concern, giving the impression that he tolerates this behaviour. Now a letter has been issued by a number of theologians and senior churchmen suggesting that the Pope is guilty of heresy.
Now theologians are highly trained in Church doctrine. They are the people best placed to interpret scripture and pronounce on the teaching of the Church. There are a number of prominent theologians in the Church but they do not always agree with each other on the finer points of doctrine. I am not a theologian and am in no way qualified to make pronouncements on doctrine. How am I to respond to the criticisms of the Holy Father?
As a scientist, faced with a decision I would look at the evidence and refer to the opinions of experts. However, in matters of theology I can’t claim to understand enough to take that route. The only option open to me is to look to examples in scripture. Are there any instances in the gospels that would clarify this situation?
The best option is to look at what Jesus did. The theologians and senior churchmen are concerned with the laws of the Church as they should be. If we look at the Gospels we see that, quite often, Jesus was accused of breaking the rules. Observance of the Sabbath was very important for the Jews. Jesus fell foul of the Jewish authorities by curing the blind and lame on the Sabbath. This was a clear breach of the letter of the law.
Is there ever an excuse for breaking the law? One of the most serious commandments is ‘Thou shalt not kill’ but exceptions are made. You could kill someone in defence of your own life or in defence of your country. Would stealing food to prevent someone from starving to death be a sin? The Commandments and the laws of the Church are there to lead us to an ideal. They describe how life should be lived but the realities of life can put us in situations where we have to choose between two evils. The Church does not expect us to be able to solve an impossible puzzle but to do our best to choose what is least harmful.
Take the example of the pilot whose aircraft goes out of control. He refuses to eject and save his life by parachute so that he can steer the plane away from a school full of children. Should he be condemned for committing suicide or rewarded in Heaven for saving lives? We don’t always expect the rules to be obeyed. The laws of the Church are intended for our good and need not be obeyed if they cause us harm.
The Holy Father’s critics accuse him of being supportive of sinners and so undermining the teaching of the Church. Logically that can be seen to be the case. However, it seems to me that Pope Francis is showing compassion for sinners and people in difficult circumstances. He has good examples to justify this.
We are all aware of the passage in John’s gospel where Jesus is confronted by the scribes and Pharisees who brought a woman who was caught in adultery. They were putting Him to the test to see if he would uphold the law that stated that she should be stoned to death. Jesus’ reply was,
“If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”
John 7: 7
When the accusers had melted away he turned to the woman,
“’Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir’ she replied. ‘Neither do I condemn you’, said Jesus ‘go away and don’t sin any more’.”
John 7: 10, 11
I noticed two things about this encounter. Firstly, it is the woman who is to be stoned, there is no mention of the man. Secondly, Jesus does not condone the woman’s behaviour but does not condemn her. That is what we would expect of Jesus, his mission was to save sinners, not condemn them. He instituted the Church to continue this work. It is the Church’s role to save and not to condemn.
Pope Francis seems to be living out Jesus’ instruction to be compassionate.
“Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge, and you will not be judged yourselves; grant pardon and you will be pardoned.”
Luke 6: 36,37
Being a sinner myself, I take great comfort in that quote knowing that I am depending on God’s mercy for my salvation. I don’t think Pope Francis is a heretic. I think he gives us a choice; are we to be sticklers for the law like the Pharisees and condemn others or are we to be like Jesus and show compassion to our fellow sinners?
There are all sorts of accusations circulating in the Catholic Church. Some have claimed that Pope Francis is guilty of heresy. Can this be true?
Check out my column in this week’s Scottish Catholic Observer. Get your copy in your local parish or, if that’s not possible, you can get the full text here next week (17th May 2019).
This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 19th April 2019.
I was at funeral the other day
The occasion was a very sad one; this was a child’s funeral. Matthew was just under two years old when he died. Deaths always come as a shock but this one was long expected. Just after he was born the Doctors had warned his parents that Matthew would not live very long. All the delights of watching a child grow normally were to be denied to them.
The family gave Matthew all the care he needed and his needs were great and constant. They had to learn how to use the life sustaining equipment when they brought him home as the hospital could do no more for him. He was frequently rushed to hospital in the middle of the night to deal with serious problems.
At his funeral our parish priest told us that often people in this situation will ask “Why did God let that child die?” and confessed he did not have the answer. Who knows the mind of God? I thought of another question some have asked me, “Why did God allow that child to live? Surely a kind God would not allow the child to live with no hope?” Their question annoyed me at the time but I realised that day that their question was the right question, one whose answer I learned at the funeral.
That question reflects the values of our society today. It assumes that a child will have purpose when it becomes an adult. Only as an adult will it have a real value. Why did God make that child? Luckily there is an answer to that question. My old catechism tells me that God made me to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world and be happy with Him in the next. That applies to us all.
How do we get to know God? It seems to me that we get to know God through love. All love comes through God and it is the love we find in other people that shows us God’s love. Matthew experienced love from his family, their friends and from the many doctors and nurses who tended to him. The turnout at his funeral mass bears witness to that. Though he would not have been able to put that into words, Matthew came to know God as we all do, through the love shown by others.
Matthew was not able to speak but his smile was a great indication for his love. It was particularly obvious when he was held by his grandfather or heard his voice that this was someone he loved. He wouldn’t have been able to mention God but surely we show our love for God in our love for our fellow man.
What about serving God? Matthew wasn’t able to do anything for himself so how could he serve God? What, in fact, do we mean by serving God? It would be wrong to assume that God needs us to do anything for Him. God is all powerful and we are able to do things as a result of God’s gifts. I believe that God has a purpose for each of us. Some may have a notable purpose like Pope Francis whose purpose is to lead the Church. Most of us have purposes that are not so obvious. Take examples form the Stations of the Cross.
Simon of Cyrene was given the task of helping Jesus carry the cross so that He didn’t die on the way to Calvary. Veronica was given the task of wiping the face of Jesus. Neither of these tasks would be regarded as spectacular but we constantly remind ourselves of these simple tasks because God’s purpose for us is generally simple but important.
So what was Matthew’s purpose? Matthew couldn’t do anything. He could only be. Why would that be an important purpose? If I stand back and look at our society today one thing stands out. Our belief in the sanctity of life is under attack. Abortion has been legal in this country since the sixties. It was sold as a law to end the difficult cases of pregnancies that threatened the mother’s life. What it rapidly became is a law that destroys countless lives for the convenience of the parents. It doesn’t stop there. Some want to extend the time when abortions can be carried out. In New York recently they changed the law to allow abortions up to the point of birth.
Now we are being denied the right to have an opinion on the matter of abortion. Laws are being introduced to prevent those who value life from bothering people outside abortion clinics by praying. How dare we pray? How dare we value life?
At the other end of life we witness pressure to allow us to assist people to die. That started off as an argument about people who are terminally ill. No treatment can help them. Now we have seen people being helped to die because they are going deaf ( a musician ), are clinically depressed and even children being allowed to choose to die even though they are not terminally ill. It would seem you can be helped to die because you are fed up with life.
Life is God’s greatest gift. Followers of Christ believe that it is for God to decide when we will die. Killing is not an option. Medicine grew as a profession to save and prolong life. We have ambulances to save lives. We devise systems to allow us to cross the road in safety to save lives. The law requires us to wear a seatbelt in a car to save lives. I’m at a loss to see how all that squares with the notion that the unborn child’s life is not just as important.
Matthew’s life was testimony to the love of his parents and friends. His life was a reminder, a timely reminder that our society is on the wrong track. By his short life he has spoken out against our disregard for God’s gift of life. Anyone who was at his funeral was left in no doubt that Matthew’s life was not of no consequence but called out that we have got it wrong.
That was God’s purpose for Matthew and he served his God and will be happy with him in Heaven. He challenges us to do the same.
What value do we place on human life? My column is published in the Scottish Catholic Observer this weekend. Get your copy in your local parish. If that’s not possible the full text will be here next Friday 26th April 2019
This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 22nd March 2019
I’m not sure if it’s an age thing or the onset of dementia, but I think I’m getting to be easily distracted. When I should be concentrating on something important I can find myself going off on a tangent. This happens in all sorts of occasions. The most disturbing is when I’m distracted at Mass. It could be something said in the homily that makes me think, sometimes examining my own life in the light of what’s been said. Before I know it the service has moved on and I’m trying to catch up.
Simple tasks at home can be similarly affected. I can set out to make tea and notice something that needs to be put away. Before long I’m tidying the kitchen and the tea has been forgotten. The same thing happens in the shops. I’m sent to get bread and milk but when I’m wandering through Tesco trying to find where they’ve moved the milk to, I spot something I had meant to buy last week. I’m off to get my new purchase and before long I’m home without the bread. This does not go down well with my other half who can often be found muttering about care homes.
It’s not as if the distractions are not important. They are usually things that really need to be done. It’s good that I do the things that distract me but the problem is that I don’t do what I set out to do in the first place. I suppose I need to get my priorities right.
I’m finding that life as a Catholic is getting a bit like that now. The more I read about what’s going on in the Church, the more unsettled I feel. I think we are allowing ourselves to get a bit distracted. The issues of abuse in the Church, physical and sexual, homosexuality, the role of the Pope, the responsibility of the hierarchy; these important issues seem to be crowding out everything else. I’m not saying that these issues are not important but perhaps we need to stand back and see where we are going.
It seems like every day the news carries a story of child abuse in the Church. There is a big splash in the papers about a priest who has been accused of abuse and then you hear no more of it. A priest you know is removed from his parish and the word spreads. After police investigations the charges are dropped but that is not on the news. The Church investigation then starts so the priest is not returned to his parish. Later, when the Church finds no offence has been committed the priest can return to his post. Again there is nothing on the news. Unfortunately, not all cases are settled with a happy outcome.
Revelations keep coming out. Some of the offences occurred way back in the past but it all creates an impression of a Church riddled with offenders today. In fact, I get the impression that the Catholic Church is the only place where abuse is going on. However, this is not the case. Child abuse is going on in families, in schools and in all sorts of organisations we always thought were safe. The Catholic Church is not the source of most of the child abuse despite the impression crated by the media but it is surely the place where we would expect children to be safe.
It is the role of the media to expose scandals like child abuse and, despite the pain, we should be grateful to those who have shone a light on this. Every organisation should be aware of this problem and take steps to combat the threat to children. The Church set up an independent commission, the McLellan Commission in 2013 to investigate the problem in the Church and make recommendations. The Commission reported in 2015 and the Church has been working to implement the recommendations since then. The document “In God’s Image” outlines the Church’s policy.
The Church now requires every parish to implement its Safeguarding procedures. Those people, lay and religious, who are involved with children or vulnerable adults are investigated by Disclosure Scotland and must attain a certificate to prove their suitability. Further to this the Church will provide training for those involved, deal with allegations, provide support for survivors, support those accused and continually monitor the quality of our systems. This is not yet complete and it will take time to put everything in place but it is a greater response to the problem than I have seen in any organisation I have been involved with.
We must raise awareness and keep vigilant without this becoming a distraction from the real work of the Church. Christ instituted the Church to carry on His work of saving sinners, including those guilty of child abuse. We have to see our Safeguarding work as a natural part of the Church’s work in spreading the Gospel. Those found guilty of abuse will be dealt with in the legal system and the Church will have no role in shielding anyone from the law. It is important that the Church can continue to work to bring salvation to the abuser. Those guilty of abuse must still have access to the sacraments. The Parish Priest must agree conditions and procedures with the abuser to allow access without endangering children and vulnerable adults.
Attending church services should be a joyful and uplifting experience. I think it’s important that we don’t lose sight of that. Knowing that the Church is taking steps to maintain a safe environment for all should allow us to continue or Catholic practices with confidence. We are all responsible for the safety of others and knowing that there is a Safeguarding Coordinator and Parish Priest who will respond to any concerns we have should give us the reassurance we need in our parishes.
I’d like to think that we could put all this behind us and that we have a future where abuse does not exist. That is just a pipe dream. We have just become aware of something that has been going on in human society for a long, long time. It’s not going to go away but, God willing, we will now be better prepared to protect our children and vulnerable adults in our care.
My column in the Scottish Catholic Observer is published this weekend (Friday 22nd March 2019). Has the issue of abuse distracted us from the real role of the Church? Get your copy in your parish this weekend.
The full text will be here next week.
Christmas is over. We know this because the cream eggs are out in the shops now; Easter is on its way. Easter arrives after a long Lent (well it always seems long to me). Ash Wednesday is on the 6th March and February is a short month so get ready. During Lent we try to prepare ourselves for a holy Easter; move away from sin towards Heaven. This month I began to think about the causes of sin and, of course, the Devil.
A popular image of the Devil is found in the Tom and Jerry cartoons. Tom is shown with an angel on one shoulder and the Devil on the other. The angel is trying to persuade Tom to do good and the Devil is persuading him, usually successfully, to do bad. I think it’s quite a good description of the battle between good and evil. It works better for me than the image of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. I’m not keen on snakes and I can’t see myself being persuaded by one. But why is the Devil so persuasive? Surely the wee angel on your shoulder should do better than the Devil?
Just why is the Devil such a good tempter? How does he do it? I think he uses his secret weapon, the lie. Isn’t it surprising how well lies work in persuading people? The current state of politics on both sides of the Atlantic show how well lies work. Some politicians tell lies all the time. Their opponents expose the lies but people take no notice and continue to believe the lies. Why are we so vulnerable to lies? I think it’s because we tell ourselves lies to boost our ego. My wife tells me that I’m not fit to decorate the room; I’m too old and I had a heart attack. I reject that as nonsense as I’m as fit as I ever was. It’s only when I have to use the wee glyceryl trinitrate spray that I realise I’ve been lying to myself.
Satan tried this with Jesus when he offered Him the whole world if He would worship him. Jesus was human but He did know the truth and rejected Satan. We really know the truth about ourselves but our pride leaves us open to flattery. The clever thing is that the Devil persuades us that we are choosing something good. We do know that the Devil can persuade us to do wrong but we kid ourselves that we are stronger than that. We deceive ourselves.
In the New Testament there are stories of people who become possessed by the Devil. In Luke 8:26, 39 we hear how Jesus cast out a legion of demons from one man, sent them into a herd of pigs and the pigs then drowned in the lake. Demonic possession is not so well accepted in modern times but in recent years there seems to more awareness of possession. The Church has priests who are trained in exorcism and there are more calls on them now. It’s not something we hear much about but you might be surprised. A few years ago I was at a conference in Leeds and got talking to a priest there. When heard where I was from he commented that that was an area with a surge in the number of exorcisms. I found that hard to believe but later found out that he was correct.
If this is a battle between good and evil what are the Devil’s tactics? I put myself in the Devil’s place (I’m not changing sides, just thinking) and I looked at where I would attack. The Devil is not one for frontal attacks so I suppose I would attack things that support the Faith. I would attack the family where we draw strength and support. I would attack the Church and the sacraments that bring us closer to God. I would attack the community of God and persuade people to think only as an individual.
Looking around I think the Devil has been busy. The family has come under attack in western society. Marriage has come under attack. When it can’t be abolished it can be weakened. We are now making marriage irrelevant. It is not seen as the cradle of the family but as a convenience for same sex couples. Now holding a traditional view of marriage is regarded as an attack on the rights of same sex couples. Actually, regarding people as being either male or female is now wrong. The latest thinking is ‘gender neutral’. Your gender is something you can just decide on a daily basis apparently. How do you keep families stable in that situation?
The attack on the Church has been Just as successful. It’s not an attack from the outside but from the inside. The sins of a minority of priests and the weakness of response by some bishops have put the whole Church on the spot. Crimes of abuse are being investigated all over the world and the Church’s image is being trashed everywhere. The abuse cases have caused many Catholics to leave the Church and have weakened the catholic community.
The community aspect of catholic life has been in decline for many years. When I was young every parish had a collection of societies and groups to cater for all ages. There were societies for men and others for women. I was a member of the Boy’s Guild and my dad was a member of the Sacred Heart confraternity. These things have largely gone. People are reluctant to join. Attendance at Sunday Mass is the last commitment and that’s only if there is no ‘game’ on.
The Devil likes us to stress our strengths and individualism. In thinking that we don’t need others we are weakened. In looking only to our own strengths we are weakened. How can we counter this? Where do our strengths lie? Paradoxically our strength lies in recognising our weakness. Knowing we are not strong enough to combat evil on our own we turn to God and that is where our strength lies.
The Church is not just a human organisation. Christ is the head of the Church and, as we see in the gospels, is stronger by far than any demon. It’s only through prayer that we can really accomplish anything good. There are lots of different forms of prayer; it’s not just the rosary. The prayer we need in the fight against evil is where we put ourselves into God’s presence and include Him in our thoughts and worries of the day. By having Christ share our lives we become stronger.
Coatbridge, my adopted home, has the motto ‘Laborare est orare’, To Work is to Pray. There is no better prayer than to offer God all we do each day. What we achieve will be all the greater for God’s involvement in it. If we truly offer our work to God, no matter how trivial that work may seem, it will play a part in the fight against the Devil and all his works.
More power to you in your work in 2019; just remember every unpleasant task you undertake, offered to God, is a blow against the Devil.
This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on the 8th February 2019
I’ve been reading more warnings about car thieves stealing cars by simply using a cheap electronic device to contact your key in your home and relaying the code to an accomplice who can then open your car, start it up and drive off; all while you are asleep and the key safely in the house.
Manufacturers are looking at ways to foil the thieves but while we await a hi-tech solution, here’s a simple precaution you can take. Just keep the key in what physicists call a Faraday cage. That might sound complex but it is simply a metal enclosure to block radio waves. I post a picture of my Faraday cage below.
As you can see this is a simple small tin box. This one came with chocolate peanuts from Marks & Spencer but any small tin will do. I keep my key in this at night and can sleep soundly, knowing it won’t be too easy to steal my car.